Friday, March 6, 2015

How to survive “the happiest place on earth.”

After 6 years of pretending that Disneyland doesn’t exist, my husband and I finally caved into taking our little boy to “the happiest place on earth”.

I’ve had Disneypark-phobia for some time. Then again, just the thought of going on any type of theme park vacation used to give me an anxiety attack … literally.

It wasn’t because of the conventional reasons and fears: the crowd, the cost, and in the past months, life threatening measles outbreak (and only-god-knows what other germs and bacterias that infest in these parks).

Being a bonafide city girl, I don’t get intimidated easily by crowds. Actually, I tend to enjoy a dynamic space where there are a lot of people and tend to get wary when I’m walking down an empty street. And although the cost of the park is a hefty sum, $92 for adults and $86 for kids aged 3 to 9 (which I’m told will increase again this summer), as these are trips to celebrate a special occasion, usually our son’s birthday, we were more than willing to bear the cost.

Also, as frightening as this year’s measles outbreak has been, our son has been vaccinated since shortly after birth.  Therefore, we were not worried about the slim chance of him contracting the virus.

However, weeks before the trip, I felt a knot in my stomach, and while looking at the map of the theme park planning where we wanted to go, I began experiencing a panic attack. I couldn’t breathe or think, and it got so bad that I asked my husband to plan the day with my son alone, as I couldn’t bear to look at the map.

It was so unlike me to be panic-stricken while planning a trip, as I’m usually enthralled by excitement and joy of exploring and discovering a new place. Yet, the thought of being in an environment that feels like a giant souvenir shop, having to stand in line for every ride and being surrounded by screaming children and grumpy tired parents made me physically ill.

Then again, never underestimate what a parent will do for their children. Some mothers lift a car to save their child who’s stuck underneath, and I was going to Disneyland. 

However, I wasn’t going without a game plan. We planned our trip for a week during Springbreak, which in hindsight is one of the worst times to be there, along with all-dreaded summer vacations and Christmas holidays. Luckily, unbeknownst to us, it was the week before LA Unified School District’s springbreak, which meant we were able to avoid the local crowd.

Nonetheless, I was not able to get rid of the pit in my stomach every time I thought about the trip. So, I called a friend of ours who lives in LA, and asked if they could join us at the park. They were seasoned patrons of Disneyland and have been to several Disney parks all over the world, and they were more than thrilled to meet us there.

Also, in order to keep my sanity, we planned only one day at the park and planned to spend the rest of the week in LA.

Nevertheless, from the moment we landed in LAX, I could feel my heart palpitating, and I was still overwhelmed by the thought of being there the next day.

To our surprise, being at Disneyland in Anaheim or in Garden Grove was like being in a small town in Vermont. Everybody was so friendly and welcoming. Unlike the aloofness and indifference we’d encountered in central LA, it was as if there was something different in the air – Novocaine, perhaps.

Also, I couldn’t believe the special treatment we got just by mentioning our son’s birthday. Not only free upgrades but also special treats and notes from the hotel staff sent to our room wishing our boy a happy birthday. My husband and I have been all over the world to celebrate our birthdays, and we have never gotten such royal treatment!

After a wonderful evening of rest and relaxation at the hotel, we headed out early to Disneyland, and although I’d feared long lines at the entrance, we were able to get through the gate without waiting. It was so easy that I wondered whether we were in the right place.

Then, as we walked through the Main Street, reminiscent of a small town in Northeast, it became clear we were at a place designed specifically for children. Disney parks are their dream come true, and as cynical as we, adults may be about the pomp and the artificiality of it all, when I saw our son’s eyes light up with wonderment and joy, I knew it was worth everything I’d gone through to be there.

Unlike other travel experiences, he got to call the shots in Disneyland and decide where to go and what to do. He explored a galaxy far far away on a Star speeder, trained with Jedi knights to defeat the Dark Side, embarked on an undersea research expedition, raced around a scenic miniature motorway as as if he was a Formula 1 driver, and the list goes on.

As we visited each attraction, seeing the delight and excitement in his face sustained me though the long lines, and I began to enjoy myself as I rediscovered the inner child in me. As we watched the elaborately staged parade, which alone was worth the exorbitant entrance fee, and the magical fireworks in the evening, I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be with our little boy.

No matter how dreadful and overpriced Disneyland may be, there’s no disputing that our son had a fantastic time, and more importantly, it was a memory that will be etched in our minds forever!

Nevertheless, as parents, there are few things that we can do to keep our sanity and even enjoy the trip, and here are some of my tips.

  • Visit the park during off season. From my experience and from what I've been told, the best time to go is in January and February. Also, the week before (or after) the LAUSD’s springbreak tend to be less crowded.
  • Stay at a hotel nearby, and take the shuttle. As long as it's in the area, the distance doesn’t matter, and make sure that the hotel offers a shuttle service to the parks. It’s cheaper and more convenient than driving, as parking is difficult, and most likely, you still have to take the shuttle from the parking lot.
  • Buy tickets online before you get to the park. It’s one less line you have to stand in.
  • Everyone we spoke to told us that Fastpass would minimize the wait time at some of the rides. However, we didn’t need it, as we were there during off season, and the wait wasn’t too bad.
  • Also, stay flexible and be willing to move on to other attractions or rides if there’s a long line at the one that you wanted to see, and come back to it when the line is shorter. Our boy’s favorite attraction in the park is Jedi Training, and when we tried to attend the 10:20am session, the arena was packed with little people. So, we went on to three other attractions and came back 1½ hours later, and there were a lot less people, which also meant that our son had a better chance of being picked to participate.
  • More over, to maintain your sanity, you have to accept the fact that you will not be able to see ALL the attractions. Even after our second visit, we still haven’t seen It’s a Small World, as waiting in that long line usually means losing half a day and being totally exhausted.
  • No photos with the characters! We enjoy sharing and commemorating the experience as a family. Therefore, taking photos with strangers hidden in costumes, especially waiting in a line for an hour to do so, is not our priority. I would rather photoshop Mickey and Minnie into a family photo.
  • Last but not least, if/when it get too much, take a break or just leave, which is what we did on our first trip. After a day of fun, our son was exhausted around 3pm. So, we decided to call it a day, as if we pushed ourselves to see and do more, we would not have enjoyed ourselves as much. Understandably, parents who spend the big bucks want to cover everything while they’re there, but if your child(ren) becomes too tired, most likely, they - and you will remember how exhausting the trip was instead of how much fun you had.

Ultimately, we had a great time at Disneyland, and believe it or not, I would gladly go back to “the happiest place on earth!”


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